FCC Report Finds Most ISPs Deliver Broadband Speeds Users Pay For

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-06-18
FCC broadband report

FCC Report Finds Most ISPs Deliver Broadband Speeds Users Pay For

Chances are you probably hate your cable provider. You hate them for their arrogance, their broken promises and their many customer service failures.

But don't hate them for giving you slow Internet, because an exhaustive series of tests by the Federal Communications Commission show that if anything, your broadband provider probably over-delivers.

But that's not to suggest that everything is all hunky-dory in Internet land, because it's not. For some types of broadband users, performance is far worse than advertised. For everyone, persistent problems with network congestion degrade Internet access.

To perform the nationwide broadband measurements, the FCC recruited 10,000 volunteers to install what the agency referred to as off-the-shelf routers with the addition of special monitoring software. Those routers delivered network performance statistics to the FCC. While those routers continued their measurements for a year or so, the formal measurement took place during September 2013.

The result is the FCC's "Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report" of 2014. You can see a summary of this report in the official press release.

The bottom line in the FCC report is that most of the big ISPs, especially those that include fiber for the network infrastructure, deliver at least the performance they advertise. Some, including Verizon FiOS, Comcast and Cablevision, routinely deliver as much as 120 percent of their advertised download speeds.

But on the downside, DSL subscribers have it worse, with only about 64 percent getting the speeds they were promised. Ironically, it was Verizon DSL that was the worst of the bunch.

However, as you probably know, there's more to good Internet performance than the data rate you're getting from your ISP. The FCC said in its media conference call that their testing had revealed serious network congestion at interchange points. Interchange points are where Internet traffic joins or leaves your ISP's network, such as when Netflix puts your streaming video on to your network to send to you.

Because of the way the FCC's test was set up, the study did not reveal details of what caused the congestion or where it happened. Instead, the congestion was treated as an anomaly and that data will be provided separately.

But it's also worth noting, as a senior FCC official mentioned during the briefing, that the agency will be looking into this congestion, peering anomalies and the issue of paying for access. One such congestion problem is with Netflix and its access to Verizon's network. Netflix is already paying for faster access, but is still having significant congestion problems.

FCC Report Finds Most ISPs Deliver Broadband Speeds Users Pay For

A report on congestion is expected by the FCC by the end of 2014.

The FCC's study was ostensibly aimed at studying network access for consumers, but it's directly relevant to most business users. As Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell told eWEEK, business and residential customers use the same network infrastructure. The biggest difference Mitchell noted was that businesses can obtain higher upload speeds at most service tiers. He also provided a chart showing the top business FiOS speed as 500M bps.

The FCC study also revealed that the average download speed for all of the test sites in the study was 20.2M bps. This number grows every year as people use the Internet for more and more things.

So how much does this speed growth affect your business? A lot depends on what you're doing with your Internet connection. The FCC also published a useful guide to broadband speeds that reveals most tasks don't really require much bandwidth. For example, using the broadband connection for email requires only about half a megabit per second, and even watching HD video requires only 4M bps.

But remember that those are per-person numbers. If you have 100 people doing those activities you'll need a lot of bandwidth. While it's not a straight multiple since everyone isn't doing the same thing at the same time, some activities that aren't listed, such as cloud backups, can require very fast connections in their own right.

What this really tells you are two things. The first is that you can get good communications from most ISPs as long as you don't use DSL. The second is that your end-to-end communications on the Internet may not be as fast or as reliable as you might hope because of serious congestion issues that may be beyond your ISP's control.

Until the FCC figures out a solution to the congestion issue, it's probably not best to depend on having every last megabit per second all the time. There will be times when it won't be available.

It's also worth noting that you may want to consider having more than one Internet provider available to your data center as a hedge against reliability issues that may affect one provider but not the other. While it's clear from this study that you're probably going to get the service you're paying for most of the time, it's also true, as the FCC noted in its report, "There's room for improvement."

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